How to write headlines that get read and generate leads

Peter Whent
March 21, 2019

The most famous words not on earth

It was the night of 20th July 1969. My mum had made me stay up.

History was about to be made as my sister and I faded in and out of sleep, our eyelids fighting an impossible struggle with gravity. But like the great parent she was, the mothership was determined that her kids would be able to say in years to come: "I saw it happen".

We all gazed in silence at the grainy black and white image on our TV. The door of the lunar module opened. From it emerged a blurred figure. An astronaut.

Slowly he climbed down the ladder. He paused on the bottom rung for what seemed an age. Finally, a jump. With both feet, Neil Armstrong landed on the surface of the moon.

Six hundred million people watching on earth held their breath. We waited to hear his reaction. And then it came:

“It’s only a relatively minor step for someone like me. But this step has huge ramifications for the advancement of the human race and our understanding of the great unknown and our appreciation of space, which in turns will help us to better understand our own origins. As we continue to push the frontiers of space, man will…….”

Jesus Christ. Get back in your space ship.

Short sentences, short words

But, of course that’s not what he said. Neil Armstrong was a Black Belt Second Dan in copy writing. He understood how to write a great quote. He knew that his next sentence was going to be written in history books for centuries. He had to make it a banger.

“That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind”

One of the great quotations of all time and not just because of the occasion. It was great because Armstrong, or more likely his scriptwriter, understood the power of words. He understood the power of the short sentence and the power of the single syllable word.

Eleven words. Two sentences. Eight of the words are one syllable.

I’m not a formally trained copywriter. I guess I’m self-trained. But I get away with it. I’m like the self-trained concert pianist. People listening can hear a beautiful tune. But if Andre Previn were listening, he’d have a look on his face like he’d just followed through.

But I get away with it because I follow a few simple rules. Two of those are the short sentence and the single syllable word.

I tell you this because those two rules are really important when you’re writing headlines. So, let’s look at headlines.

You had one job

A headline has one job. To make sure the reader carries on and reads what comes next. Nothing more.

It is the most important part of any piece of work. If the headline doesn’t do its job, the rest is redundant. You can have words that read like poetry and flow like honey. But if a shit headline stands between them and the reader, they’re wasted.

Headlines aren’t just those few words that sit at the top of a blog post or a newspaper article. We write headlines all the time. They can be anything. The all have the same job.

Every email subject line is a headline. Your LinkedIn headline is, self-evidently a headline. The first line of a CV, the opening five seconds of a talk, the first words of an interview, are all headlines.

Nowhere are they more important than in messaging through your content. You are nearly always competing for attention. There is always another post, blog or update to scroll on to. So, your headline has to grab your reader’s attention like a kick in the nuts. How do you do that?

First you need to obey the law of the short sentence and the single syllable words. They keep it simple, and simplicity is good. But how do we then give it impact?

Let me share with you a couple of the ways this self-trained wannabe wordsmith does it.

Make a promise

People will only open your article and read it if they see something compelling in it for them. So, make them a promise. A promise that if they read what you’ve written, they will get something that’s really important to them:

“Write great copy like a pro”

The promise is clear. If you read this article, I’m going to show you how to write copy like you’ve always wanted to. If you know your audience, this bit should be easy.

Now power-up the headline

There are a few short phrases that add real power to a headline. None more so than “how to”.

Copy writer Bob Bly says that if you start with the words “how to” you can’t write a bad headline.

“How to write great copy like a pro”

Providing what you are going to teach them is compelling, then this is a winner. Not only are you giving them what they want, but you’re establishing yourself as an authority. The implication is clear. I’ve done this and I can show you how to do it too.

Now turbo charge your headline to the power of two

Double the benefit and more than double the impact. If you tell your reader that there is more than one benefit, the power of the headline more than doubles.

“How to write great copy and win more customers”

The first benefit on its own would be powerful. The second one feels like an added bonus.

Copy writer David Garfinkel also points out the subtle message in these double headlines. There is a suggestion that if you master the first one, the second one follows on automatically.

Take your time

My final tip is to take time over your headline, whatever it is. It holds the key to the main content. It makes sense to spend almost as much time on the headline as you do on the body of the content. If I take an hour to write a blog, I’d spend at least 15 minutes writing the headline. I’d also write the headline first, while I’m fresh and my pen is full.

So as an example of how this all works, let’s pull it together. Let’s look at this in action. You could find an example of a headline that used all this wisdom at…….. oh look, the top of this article.

If you’ve got this far it worked. If you’ve haven’t neither of us will ever know.

Happy headlines.

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